Research / Christianity and democracy

The moral foundations of the modern state and the problem of “secular religions”

What we tackle here is the moral foundations of the modern, secular state and a possible solution to its problems which so-called “secular religions” offer.

The first part was written by András Jancsó on the perhaps most important European thinker on the paradoxical nature of the modern state, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, the context of his thought, and the significance of his thought for today’s debates on the role of the state, the issue of social cohesion, and the meaning of  Christian democracy in its relation with liberal and social democracy.  

For those who are less familiar with the work of Böckenförde, let us emphasize that he was not only a judge in the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany from 1983 to 1996 (a significant position itself), but also one of the most widely quoted theoretical thinkers on the role of Christianity in modern societies. His thesis, the “Böckenförde dictum” or “Böckenförde paradox” is still a point of departure for almost every discussion when it comes to the moral foundations of liberal societies, in which an alleged “state neutrality” tends to eliminate exactly those Christian foundations without which it cannot sustain itself. It was also Böckenförde who first expressed doubts about the liberal state’s ability to create “new” values instead of “old” ones, and it is in this regard that he was cited by as diverse authors as Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) and Jürgen Habermas. The famous Ratzinger-Habermas debate in 2004 was also in many respects reliant on Böckenförde’s theses drafted forty years earlier. Outside Germany, his influence is clearly visible in such popular works as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which repeats the Böckenförde dictum almost literally – albeit without mentioning his name – and English translations of his collected writings are currently being published by Oxford University Press. His legacy nevertheless remains disputed: while being a devout Catholic who even contributed to the reinterpretation of certain doctrines by the Second Vatican Council, he never joined a Christian party in his native Germany, but became a member of the Social Democratic Party – while also distancing himself from some of his own party’s ideological inclinations.  

The second part is by Ádám Darabos on Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most prominent Christian political theologians of the 20th century and his contribution to the discussion of secular religions – especially communism – that aimed to replace traditional religions in offering a new morality for society.

Niebuhr is once again not someone arbitrarily chosen from a long line of thinkers: speaking of what we call “Christian realism”, he is not one of, but perhaps the most important figure in this genre. If Böckenförde was concerned with the moral foundations of the state, Niebuhr was more worried by the vicissitudes of power politics. Starting as a socialist and pacifist in his younger years, he soon realized how Marxist ideology and sympathy for it among American intellectuals had a detrimental effect on both domestic and foreign policy, and converted to a belief in political realism, a stance he would never abandon. The most interesting fact is not that he made this conversion but that despite it he remained – and keeps on being – popular at both ends of the political spectrum.       

He is still an inspirational character for both Democrats and Republicans in the United States. Not just Jimmy Carter and John McCain admitted the greatness of Niebuhr’s thought; in a 2007 New York Times interview even Barack Obama said: “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” Asking Obama about what he takes away from Niebuhr, he replied: “I take away the compelling idea that there is a serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away (…) the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.” 

In what follows, we shall see the significance of both Böckenförde and Niebuhr further elaborated: for the time being, let us just say that the apparently conflicting ideas of moral foundations and political realities have their most important expressions in the works of these two thinkers. Many others will be mentioned, for sure, but the tension between these two – otherwise equally Christian – approaches may shed light on the substantial problems of Christian politics in a more general sense as well...

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